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blind boy fuller

Chicka (stomp) Chicka Ding! The musical washboard and stomp box

A curious bright-eyed youngster approached me on stage as I was packing up gear after a bar gig a few weeks back. "I don't mean to bother you but my friends and I are wondering what that board instrument you were playing is called." Enthusiastically, I picked up my little musical washboard and gave her an explanation of the handcrafted percussion instrument that my husband and I cobbled together with antique tins and old bells. When we play overseas people will refer to it as a "scratchboard" sometimes or simply "the bell thing". A relative of the washtub bass the washboard as a percussion instrument has deep American roots. There are plenty of different ways to play it, but the rhythmic techniques I use come from the washboard players of the pre-war Piedmont and Delta blues era. Since our new album "2" is heavily focused on exploring these styles of music through Jeff's swampy 1936 National Duolian resonator guitar, I decided to shed some light on what tends to be an overshadowed instrument that so many people are familiar with.     

History claims that the wooden plated washboard is considered to be among one of the great American inventions of the 1830s. Having a similar musical cultural history as the Peruvian cajon (the box drum), slaves would use the dual device as a percussive drum when musical instruments were banned from being played to accompany singing, dancing, and chanting. In later years this form of musical expression evolved into what we consider traditional blues and early jazz music. The washboard is primarily played by using a series of tapping and scraping motions, generally with thimbles or spoons, on the metal board, wooden frame, and its attached accessories which can range anywhere from a cowbell to a cymbal. 

I've bent my ears to many washboard players over the years and one of my biggest influences and favorite washboard players in American Piedmont blues history is Bull City Red (born George Washington in 1917) who accompanied artists such as resophonic guitarist Blind Boy Fuller and ragtime guitarist and singer Blind Blake. The use of the washboard in these early recordings helped pave the way into the early Piedmont blues era of music. Bull City Red's playing is steady like a train in motion and then he'll pull out a rhythmic break that will trick your ears. The tones he captivates on the washboard are crisp, clean, and a perfect polyrhythmic echo to the muddy nature of his counterpart guitar. My washboard contains antique tins, a brass bike bell, and a Tibetan meditation bell to round out the tone.

To add to the washboard's sound I borrowed a technique from the blues players of the past and added a shotgun shell box as a stomp box. So the story goes back in the day blues players would often play in tobacco houses and coal mining towns. In these communities dynamite was a common commodity and the discarded wooden boxes for dynamite were often easy to come by. The blues players learned that the box made a great hollow thumping sound when stomped on and could hold up to the wear and tear of many a night's camaraderie. Of course the story continues that the dynamite boxes sometimes contained unstable residues and would sometimes ignite if stomped too hard! The box I choose to use is free of this problem but contains the same sound the dynamite boxes produced. I choose to play mine standing with a tambourine inside and will often stick a microphone in it to allow it to be amplified.

From Creole zydeco to Appalachian folk, the washboard has played an important role in American jug band music. It packs a lot of punch for its size and boosts the drive and texture of a song. I'm happy to see that people are still taking an interest in washboard playing and I like encouraging those who wish to learn how to play. "All it takes is a trip to your local antique store, a bit of elbow grease, and access to some old blues recordings" is what I say. Alongside a creative stomp box you can get some pretty complex rhythms and sounds out of a small portable package. 


Why the resonator?

There's nothing like the tone of a resophonic guitar. I firmly believe that statement to be true. They drive the sound of delta blues, commit the twang into bluegrass, give Hawaiian music it's distinct sway and hypnotic sound, and of course, they're cool to look at.  They aren't just growling beasts of volume as many believe them to be. I find they are some of the sweetest and nuanced acoustic instruments out there. I have been lucky to own 4 resonator instruments in my short lifetime and my journey to acquiring them has brought me my current point of fascination with them.

The very first resophonic guitar I got was a $300 Craigslist purchase of a Johnson brand biscuit resonator. It came with two glass bottleneck slides and a cheap cardboard case that could barely contain the guitar's weight. I strung it up once I got it home and just never found my groove with it, I tried standard tuning, open D, open G, and other variations but just never liked it's sound. I set it aside and only pulled it out when it's tone escaped my memory and I thought that maybe I was missing something and it actually sounded good. (it didn't) I learned later what I was really looking for was a quality biscuit cone, but more on that later. All in all it seeded my disdain for cheaply made resonator guitars, no "bargain brand" resonator ever sounds good to me, they just sound like a poorly manufactured knockoff of the real thing.

Once I had moved to Chicago I started getting more into bluegrass music and thought I might like the Dobro. The Dobro is of course the common name to the spider bridged squareneck resonator. See, back in the day there were two competing companies, the National Guitar Company, and the Dobro Company. Though in the beginning they were just the National Company. National's main inventor and designer, John Dopyera left National to form his own company where he designed the spider bridge with his brother. They called the company "Dobro" after their name: Dopyera Brothers. Eventually the two feuding companies merged together to better navigate the new electric guitar industry and eventually shut down after WWII. (Gibson now owns the Dobro trademark) As for my square neck, it was a Regal, (a model up from the RD-40) and it was pretty good for what it was. I learned a lot about bluegrass music, and blues, and loved the warm tone it gave off. I even played it on a few tracks on "Songbirds and Fog". I don't use it much anymore but still love to play it when I get the chance. 

Of course this is all just fodder when it comes to my favorite instrument. There's an old adage in guitar playing: "when I die, don't let my wife sell my guitars for what I told her I paid for it". See, I had been listening to a lot of delta blues, and was realizing that the cheap Johnson guitar I was using was just poorly made for the tone I was seeking. I needed a good resonator if I wanted to play one well. I searched for many months to find a guitar I wanted, I even ordered one and sent it back; I was so picky in what I wanted but I remained strong in my faith that I would find my guitar. It was on one day we were on tour in Colorado that Rocky and I stopped into a guitar shop and asked if they had any resophonics. The guy laughed a bit and said "yeah like 200 of them". I thought he was joking but it turned out he wasn't. A collector had passed away in town and his wife was left with his massive collection of Nationals. I played several of them that day and had a great time. I couldn't get over one of them though and just had to have it, it was a 1936 National Duolian and it has since become my primary instrument. I bought it for the price the collector's wife said it was worth, and learned a lesson that day: always tell your partner what you paid or they might rip themselves off. I did feel a touch bad but I felt it needed to be played not put in storage as a collector's item. I would later learn that it's the same make, model, and year as Blind Boy Fuller's guitar. (I've done a lot of research to see if it might be his but that's a conversation for another time.) It's one of the finest instruments I've ever played. The biscuit cone resonator was $32.50 when they were first issued and became a favorite of blues musicians for their affordability, volume, and durability. (they said they were bullet-proof!) Famously played by Son House, Booker White, and of course Blind Boy Fuller they provide a sound that I just can't turn away from. Also the fact that this guitar was built before planned obsolescence was common place means it will last for many more decades.

My last acquisition was my National Tricone. It has 3 small resonator cones that connect to a T-shaped bridge and give off a more sweet and mellow tone. It's a really lovely guitar and was expertly made. I stopped into the National factory in San Luis Obispo and got to see the machinery and factory where it was made, These guys really make the best reproduction of the original instruments. I got the tricone mostly as a backup in case my duolian ever acts up, and I use them interchangeably depending on my mood now. I use it on a few YouTube videos on our channel.

So what's the deal? what makes them so special? I think it's their ability to respond to everything the player does. I love my flattop guitar but if I strum hard on it it gets to a peak volume that can't be surpassed. If I do the same to my duolian it gets as loud as I can hit it and can get as quiet and mellow as I want to play it too. Some folks just get them because they're loud, which I can also understand. I love them because they have so much more to offer than a traditional guitar.  They're great for slide of course, and I like to play slide on mine as much as one could expect. The irony is not lost on me however how these guitars of the working class musician are now collector's items, I think every roots and blues guitarist should try one out at some point. They contain a simple type of industrial magic that captures the 20's and 30's of America so well. Part mechanical, part artistic, and completely untraveled land at the time of their release, this class of guitar will always hold a special place in my ear and my heart. 

Twang on~🎶


From the record collection: Blind Boy Fuller

One of the best parts to a semi-remote location is the need to get in touch with more "old school" mechanics. Since we started living in the Ozarks we've gotten much more in touch the record player which pairs well with our love of old recordings. One of the frequent records we spin is by the late Blind Boy Fuller. The record, "Truckin' my blues away" features a great illustration by R. Crumb which is probably why it ended up in our collection. 

Fuller, real name Fulton Allen, was a talented and often underrated bluesman of the delta blues era. Like many of his contemporaries only a few photographs exist but his recordings are what really matter. Legend has it he lost his sight to "Snow blindness" in his teens to early 20's. He had already learned guitar but started to play more as his sight left him. He played a lot of rags, and walking blues, and often let his low brow humor shine. ("what's that smells like fish" is  great example.) aside from his signatory style he played everything on his National brand duolian guitar which used to make the record execs nervous because it was so loud. During his sessions he would sit in a chair and have a man behind him poke him gently when the "recording" light went on since he couldn't see it himself. What he produced afterwards was some of the the most influential music of it's time. In his lifetime he would play tobacco houses, and taverns, or even on the sidewalks of whatever city he was in oftentimes with a washboard player as you sometimes hear on his recordings.

His playing style is distinct and a perfect mix of complex and simple. Using no finger picks he plucked his guitar in a bouncing Piedmont blues style that many try to emulate today. He used to play slide too, until he learned to finger pick and decided he liked that better. His slide playing can still be heard on a few select recordings and you can tell on some songs he got his licks from his slide days. ("walking my blues away" is a great example)

He spent sometime in jail as well which formulated some of his material. He had a great relationship with Sonny Terry as well as some ties to the Reverend Gary Davis and Booker White. One mystery that I wish would be solved is where his guitar ended up. (Booker White's is in England apparently) He died 1940, due to organ failure, most likely from heavy drinking. He did teach Brownie McGhee quite a bit, and after his death the record execs tried to label poor Mr.  McGhee as "Blind Boy Fuller 2". His influence is very apparent on Brownie McGhee's recordings. 

All in all, I love his music. His song structures often remind me of contemporary music and I really see his influence stretch across the American soundscape. If you're unfamiliar with his material it's worth a listen and he's one of the most "accessible" blues men of his time. 

Thanks for readin'!